Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:59 pm on 15th April 1983.

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Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Tower Hamlets Bethnal Green and Bow 1:59 pm, 15th April 1983

The House must be indebted to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) for tabling the motion, thereby providing an opportunity for a debate. Unfortunately, for reasons which hon. Members appreciate the debate will be rather truncated. I warmly appreciate the terms of the hon. Member's motion, although I have one or two reservations about it and some of his remarks. I cannot envisage that any hon. Member would oppose a motion whose central thrust supports those on both sides of the argument who hold moderate views and oppose those who hold extreme views — or, even worse, take extreme action. I did not think that the speech of the hon. Member for Leominster was as moderate as his motion. Resting on the words on the Order Paper, I strongly support the motion. I trust that the House will carry it.

I have a reservation about the 1967 borders. Many delicate negotiations will take place but I am more optimistic than the hon. Gentleman. I envisage that within a measurable time considerable progress will be made on the negotiations. The definition of what are secure and recognised borders both for Israel and for whatever Palestinian state comes into existence must be one of the subjects on the table during the negotiations. So, too—this is a reservation that I have about the Reagan initiative —must be the relationship between the people on the West Bank when they have escaped from military occupation, as I hope they soon will, and Israel and Jordan. The relations with Jordan of those on the West Bank should be decided only by the people on the West Bank. There should be no precondition set upon those relations before negotiations have taken place.

The hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his speech that the world will not get anywhere with the problem until it is removed from the hands of extremists. Five days ago —last Sunday—I unhappily had first-hand experience of extremism. I was attending a meeting at the Hotel Montechoro in Albufeira, in southern Portugal, a few yards away from the hotel lobby in which, while that meeting was going on, Issam Sartawi was shot. He was recognised by friends and opponents as being a fine man, a pursuer of peace and a stalwart defender of moderation between people with different interests. An hour later, at the meeting of the Congress of the Socialist International, the general secretary read out a letter to the president that the poor victim had written only the previous day. The experience was eerie and almost spooky. The general secretary read out in measured precise terms the words of the man whose body, covered with a black sheet, was lying at that moment 20 yards away on the floor of the hotel lobby. It was as if it was not the man himself but his soul that was speaking to us through that letter. None of the couple of hundred people who lived through that experience will ever forget it.

The hon. Member for Leominster referred to Shlomo Argov. It was the same gun which slew Dr. Sartawi which almost mortally wounded Shlomo Argov. One man was a representative of the Government of Israel and the other an important and valuable member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. We must get away from the extremism which, as the hon. Gentleman has said, clearly exists on both sides.

With respect to the hon. Member for Leominster, I am not sure that he really understands the problems of getting some fresh thought directed to these issues in Israel. I correct him on an error of fact. He said that Israel is run by those who lived through the period of the holocaust. The trouble is that the Begin Government—I do not approve of them for a single moment, as they are too much like our own Government—derive their majority from the people and the children of people who were kicked out of Arab countries with no more than the clothes in which they stood up. The Begin Government do not derive their majority from those who came from Europe.

We are all rightly conscious of and sensitive about the problem of the Palestinian refugees. Theirs is a problem of a great human tragedy that demands the world's attention. It is often forgotten that in Israel there is a majority of Jews who are refugees from Arab countries who escaped from the most vicious oppression, and who still in their memories bear the scars of their experience. It will take a generation before those scars are healed. It will be the children of the present generation who will need to learn to get away from their parents' hostility to Arabs and Arabism in general, which was created by the rough treatment that they received at the hands of Arabs.

I disapprove as much as the hon. Member for Leominster of the Israel Government's settlement policy. It is gratuitous. It is an obstacle to the creation of a peaceful outcome. There is nothing to be said for it, even on the ground of Israel's interests. It is more than a decade ago that I said to the then Prime Minister of Israel that if I were in his chair I would order at three months' notice a unilateral evacuation by Israel of the West Bank. He was a bit startled about that. I explained that the whole of human history shows — certainly the history of the second world war—that powerful Governments can be brought to their knees by the effort and waste of resources incurred in holding down hostile populations.

I have a passionate attachment to Israel. Half my family is there and they have been there a long time. However, I do not believe for one moment that it is in Israel's interests to absorb, against its will, a population of over 1 million non-Jews. We must remember that the United Nations resolution of 1947 — everyone talks about United Nations resolutions while forgetting the initial one, the one that led to all those that followed—set up two states. It called not for the setting up of Israel but for the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state. The extremists on both sides are in violation of that resolution. Members of the more extreme wing of the PLO who talk about rubbing out Israel and creating a secular state are in violation of the resolution. People in Israel who deny the setting up of an Arab state are equally in violation of the same resolution.

It would be very much against the interests of the people of Israel to absorb a hostile, different population into their midst. I disapprove of the settlement policy as much as the hon. Gentleman does, but he is far too pessimistic about the danger that it represents to the peace process. Driving to the House today, I heard on the radio a distinguished Arab whom I have met. He dislikes the settlement policy as much as we do, but he says that we should not over-react to it. There are well over 1 million Arabs on the West Bank and only 22,000 Jews. That is just 2 per cent. Even if all the houses now being built were occupied, the proportion would rise to only 3 per cent. That is not unmanageable. In Yamit—an area far less sensitive than the West Bank — even the Begin Government threw out 8,000 Israelis from long-established settlements as a contribution to the peace process, so we should not worry too much about that aspect.

I shall not argue about the legality of the matter. The hon. Gentleman was shocked that President Reagan should suggest that the settlements were not illegal, but I have heard distinguished international constitutional lawyers say the same. I am not a lawyer, so I do not know. The question seems not to be decided.

The hon. Gentleman said that the PLO must be brought into the peace process. That seems inevitable, but we must consider the implications. First, we must ascertain whether it wishes to be brought in. We talk of the PLO as though it were a single, homogeneous organisation. In fact, it is a coalition of eight bodies with a wide spectrum of views.

The hon. Gentleman says that if we get together with Europe we can influence the situation. That is exactly what Lord Carrington did when he organised the summit conference and emerged triumphant with the Venice declaration. As the declaration was pro-Arab and pro-PLO he expected that the Israelis would reject it but that the Arabs would welcome it and the PLO would jump for joy. Predictably, the Israelis rejected it, but two hours later the PLO rejected it in even stronger terms, saying that it did not wish to take part in the negotiations because it believed that its problems could be solved only by the rifle.

One cannot bring into negotiations people or bodies who explicitly state their belief that their problems cannot be solved by negotiations. That is the real difficulty. The PLO will have to sort out its own internal problems. Every time someone like Sartawi puts out a moderate statement, as in the letter sent to us, another wing of the PLO issues a counter-statement the following day saying exactly the opposite. I am sure that Mr. Arafat has been trying hard to achieve unity of view, but he has not succeeded so far. Until that is achieved, the lack of a single direction will present a great problem.

I could say a great deal more, but I am conscious that others wish to speak and that time is short. I therefore rest my case. I do not support all that the hon. Gentleman has said, but I warmly support his motion.